Sunday, May 24, 2009

More on The Case for Working With Your Hands

Matthew B. Crawford's essay, about which I posted yesterday, can be found here.

There are other thoughts there that may be a starting point for elaboration.

The common desi hazard is not Indian-only.
There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions.

The philosophers of science do not understand why many times one hypothesis wins out. Simplicity and beauty are not quantifiable, nor are reliable guides to scientific truth. But all hypotheses are not created equal. The motorcycle mechanic encounters it, though in a different way.
Measured in likelihood of screw-ups, the cost is not identical for all avenues of inquiry when deciding which hypothesis to pursue. Imagine you’re trying to figure out why a bike won’t start. The fasteners holding the engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips head, and they are almost always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch if each of eight screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Such impediments have to be taken into account. The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.

There is an ethical dimension to the very process of thought:
...habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about....The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem?....
There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of perception and habit.

The problem the mid-level manager faces is described:
A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions.

The remoteness of the decision-makers from the content of the work that they make decisions about is described, leading to this:
Rather, my supervisor and I both were held to a metric that was conjured by someone remote from the work process — an absentee decision maker armed with a (putatively) profit-maximizing calculus, one that took no account of the intrinsic nature of the job. I wonder whether the resulting perversity really made for maximum profits in the long term. Corporate managers are not, after all, the owners of the businesses they run.

The scarcity of good jobs:
A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.

Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate.


Anonymous said...

I certainly don't want to knock motorcycle mechanics, and I have never been one. I have bucked hay, weeded potatos, dug ditches, tended a golf course and done a few other forms of menial labor, but I was not impressed by its liberating effects. Neither were most of my co-workers. I am inclined to think it is an experience everybody ought to have.

FWIW, I have a friend who put himself through grad school (astrophysics) by running a garage, and he's often said he was sorry about the choice he made to go with science.


Arun said...

Well, I've never been a motorcycle mechanic either. It apparently provokes one to philosophize, as in Crawford's essay, or Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". It seems to be a highly skilled profession requiring both mental and physical dexterity, has a lot of arcane knowledge, a network of congenial experts, so one can indefinitely become better and better.